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"Where do you fit in?" asks the copy on a tube of Miss Jessie’s MultiCultural Curls. "You have a multitude of textures, or come from a beautiful mix of different ethnicities, but cannot find styling products that work for your unique curls."
This is a problem for people with thick, curly hair. Until relatively recently, mainstream beauty aisles were stocked with all manner of gels and sprays targeted to (usually white) women with straight-to-wavy hair looking for volume and texture. For any other products, there was the "ethnic" aisle, stocked with heavy oils or chemical straighteners. If your hair fell in between, well, good luck.
Over the past decade, black women tired of chemical straightening being deemed the only "acceptable" hair style have propelled a growing movement to embrace curls, helping anyone with naturally curly hair. Now it’s easier to find brands like John Frieda’s Frizz Ease, Marc Anthony Strictly Curls, and DevaCurl on mainstream drugstore shelves, as well as curl lines from larger hair companies. There’s even a commonly accepted scale to help women with curlier textures find what they need, ranging from 2A (wavy and fine) to 4C (tight and coily).
However, there is a sub-genre of products made not just for thick, curly hair, but marketed specifically toward people of mixed-race heritage. Brands like Mixed Chicks, CurlyKids, Treasured Locks and Miss Jessie’s are not just about a hair texture, but also identity; one that an increasing number of people can claim. And they are challenging the stale dichotomy between the mainstream and ethnic hair aisles.
The first time I saw Mixed Chicks Leave-In Conditioner, it knocked me on my ass. I had that moment marketers spend countless hours and dollars to engineer, where a consumer is struck with the thought "Finally, a product that was made for me!" As the child of an Indian father and a white mother with a head of curls, I spent my adolescence as a bathroom chemist, mixing products to create something that would keep my hair from frizzing while also avoiding the greased wig look. It worked sometimes, but mostly I spent high school in braided pigtails to avoid the whole thing. Mixed Chicks called to me in a way nothing had.
I spent my adolescence as a bathroom chemist, mixing products.
This experience is exactly what the creators of these products are trying to address (and monetize). Wendi Levy, co-founder of Mixed Chicks, was a fellow product mixer, and longed for just one bottle that’d get the job done. "We entered the whole industry and market out of a personal need," she says. She and co-founder Kim Etheredge both have one white and one black parent, and struggled to find anything that worked for their hair on the shelves in the '70s and '80s. In 2004, they introduced their leave-in conditioner. "Finally, a curl defining formula designed for ‘us’," the bottle reads, later inviting users to "be a part of our multi-racial movement."
Miko Branch, co-founder of Miss Jessie’s, told Racked her products were created to serve women who had few options for their curly hair. Miss Jessie’s addresses a number of curl types, but MultiCultural curls was made specifically for curls with a multitude of textures, a hair issue many mixed-race women face. "As biracial children of a black father and Japanese-American mother, my sister and I had our hair issues, but we share the same issues with other women who may not be biracial," she says. The same goes for Charles Williams, president and CEO of CurlyKids (which describes itself as "Mixed Hair Haircare" just below the name). "It was obvious to us that families with children that had these hair textures were a little frustrated and having some difficulty managing their child's hair," he says over email, finding other products "outdated and ineffective."
Calling a product 'multiracial' or 'mixed' is enticing for anyone who identifies as such.
The names are key. While the body text explains these products are for anyone with this hair type, calling a product "multiracial" or "mixed" is enticing for anyone who identifies as such. Hair, especially curly hair, is complicated. Growing up, I didn’t really know how to deal with mine. It seemed all the buzzwords were things I needed — moisture, definition, anti-breakage, sleekness, shine. The overwhelming message was that my hair was a problem. It needed to be tamed, de-frizzed, straightened — often code for "whitened." But products like Mixed Chicks and MultiCultural Curls, or CurlyKids (and its adult line, CurlyChic) with a website full of adorable biracial children, take away the panic. The products felt like they were for me in a way nothing else was.
To be clear, there is no such thing as "mixed-race hair." Someone with a white mother and a Chinese father is not going to need the same hair products as someone with a Cuban mother and a black father. White people can have curly hair and people of color can have straight hair. Also race is a social construct, yada yada. And yet, in the hair market, "mixed" signifies something very specific. Williams describes it as "... a hair type generally associated with people of African descent combined with other hair types, be it wavy, curly, or straight." In any case, according to the 2010 US census, nine million Americans identify as multiracial. There are lots of opportunities for different hair types, but to put it simply, "mixed" hair is a growing demographic. Sales of products used for natural hair care grew by 55% in the past year.
Not everyone needs to address race to appeal to people looking to embrace their natural hair texture. Take DevaCurl, another leader in the natural curls movement. "Our celebration of the individual has really resonated with this extremely diverse community," says Megan Streeter, VP of marketing. Its website, like those of many multiracial brands, features women of all colors and curl types, but doesn't mention race. "Curly hair can have a major impact on a person’s identity, and that does often tie into racial identity, but that’s only one part of the story," says Streeter. For them, it’s just about curls.
Even if companies have copy that speaks about mixed heritage or biraciality, many avoid talking about it too much, going with a broader approach rather than appealing to a niche. According to Branch, Miss Jessie’s is focused on "hair texture, rather than skin color," and its products are "designed for every type of wave, curl or kink without regard to race, color or ethnicity." The same goes for CurlyKids. "Our objective was to focus on the hair and not the heritage," Williams says. After all, that "mixed" description speaks to a market that many monoracial people also fall into (and many mixed-race people don’t). Why alienate potential customers?
To be clear, there is no such thing as 'mixed race hair.'
But branding around the mixed race experience can make devoted fans of people who’ve never really had any products made with them in mind. "We are reaching out to multicultural people, because we also grew up during that time where you had to check off one box," says Levy. The name "Mixed Chicks" was an attempt to reach people who identified with that struggle, and also with parents of mixed kids who perhaps didn’t know how to manage curly hair.
She also knew it was going to get people thinking about how race relates to hair, in both good and bad ways. "A few black women were offended because they felt like we were making ourselves separate and better," says Levy, and some white women thought the word "chicks" derogatory. On the other hand, there are people for whom the name resonates, who felt seen in a market that makes them choose a side. "Mixed Chicks describes me and a lot of other people, but I’m not trying to exclude any group."
The products don’t exclude anyone, they’re just making sure those who have been ignored for so long are put front and center. However, that recognition comes at a cost. By centering the experiences of multiracial people, they're seen as "ethnic" products and thus excluded from mainstream shelf space, where the default customer is still assumed to be white. "Most people, if you’re not ethnic, you don’t even know there’s an ethnic aisle," says Levy. "You might not ever think to use our product because you don’t look at yourself like you should be in the ethnic aisle."
The hair industry has the capacity to be a great equalizer.
Hair aisles are changing. "You will find that the multicultural and general market sections are getting closer to one another on store shelves," says Williams. But grouping still separates products seen as "ethnic" from all others. In your average drugstore, there are three categories of hair products. There’s mainstream; your Herbal Essences and Pantenes that take up the most space. There’s ethnic. And then there’s "salon," supposedly for brands of higher price points. Many ethnic and mixed-race brands could reasonably fall into the latter category (a bottle of MultiCultural Curls runs about $17), yet often they don’t.
At one drugstore I visited, DevaCurl was positioned brightly in the salon brands section of the aisle alongside John Frieda and a lot of stuff with argan oil. There was one Shea Moisture conditioner in the area before it became a sea of Suave. Brands like Mixed Chicks and Kinky Curly were in the ethnic aisle around the corner. At another, Miss Jessie’s, Curly Kids, As I Am, and Shea Moisture were separated by Dark & Lovely chemical straightener from the mainstream section, while the "unethnic" curl-conscious salon brands were on the other side. Price point, ingredient list; those things don’t matter. If it’s perceived to be for people of color, it doesn’t count as "salon."
There is no hair product for everyone. In that way, the hair industry has the capacity to be a great equalizer — and as long as something works for your hair type, it shouldn’t matter if the product caters to someone who doesn’t look like you. Yet by keeping ethnic brands separate, the message is that white is neutral and ethnic is other. POC and mixed-raced customers are expected to find what they need in mainstream products that never had them in mind, or go to their ethnic corner, where brands have to fight over less shelf space. And white people miss out on products that could work for them because they don’t consider themselves "other" enough to shop down the aisle. "We just think it’s kind of unfair that we can’t tell you where to place our product and where our customer is," says Levy.
As goes hair, so goes the nation. A common experience among mixed-race people is being denied the freedom to define their own identity. The struggle is to be whole, not half and half, and brands like these are challenging the idea that the hair industry has to be either/or. They also highlight just how far we have to go before those aisles are bridged, and before "mixed" stops being shorthand for "black and white." But a product can center brown people while still working for white people. A product doesn’t have to mention race to be ethnic. It doesn’t have to check one box.